Today’s Stray: Dumped at Walmart


Every time I find a stray dog it’s a punch in the gut. I can’t help letting them me remind me of all the lousy things humans do.

Roo hasn’t been feeling too well lately after a brutal drive through freezing, wet weather all the way from Maine to Oklahoma. I thought she would be happy to be here, but she wasn’t. There were a series of explosions in the distance around 6 in the morning after we arrived late at night, but she seemed oddly displeased to be here from the start. She didn’t want to walk, or swim. Her wounds have healed, so it didn’t look like those were bothering her, but who knows. There was gunfire, too, and after the quiet of Maine, where you never hear a gunshot, reviving the memory of them was probably too much for her. She needs to go to the vet anyway, but her vet, Dr. Stokes, is out of town until Monday, so we’re stuck at least until then, and probably longer, because we’re out of places to go, among other things.

Today, though, she finally perked up enough to go for more of a walk. She is slowing down — it was her seventh birthday on the 11th, so, maybe it’s just age. She enjoyed herself, but it kills me to see her run so much less than she did even two weeks ago. After her walk was when we went to Walmart. 

It was rush hour there, and a frantic dog was running around in the parking lot near the entrance. He was disoriented and frightened and clearly looking for someone. He ran to all the cars and hopped up to look in the windows as they rolled past him. 

“Get the hell off my truck!” one man yelled at him, as if the dog was a treat to his mismatched junkyard doors, probably replaced one at a time every time he ran into something when he was drunk on the way back from a strip bar in Fort Smith.

I kept trying to call him over, but he was panicking and wasn’t interested. You have to be careful not to chase a nervous dog, unless you want them to ran farther and faster, but I stalked him around for 15 or 20 minutes and as he got more used to me he started to come closer, but his main mission was trying to find his car, and eventually he disappeared.

I went in the store and asked someone to announce that a lost dog was running around the parking lot. Brown with an orange safety collar. The announcement sounded like a chicken squawking from inside a burlap bag and I asked them to do it again and maybe to speak a little more slowly and clearly. Back outside, there was no sign of the dog. I went back in and bought some noodles, a can of tuna, a loaf of bread, a couple of Kit Kats and a gallon of water — pretty much my diet these days, though Roo and I split the water — and went back outside. No sign of the wayfaring stranger.

Dispirited, I put the car in gear, and when Roo and I were pulling out, I drove another couple of rounds in the lot and spotted the dog again. He was more amped up than before and running faster. He knew he was in trouble. He was jumping up to look in the windows of parked cars not too far from where I was parked. I thought of getting Roo out as a lure, but decided against it. It was too busy in the lot and if I ever managed to get ahold of him it would have been hard to manage the two of them with him jumping around the way he was, and there was always the chance of a dog fight.

“Sorry, Chig,” I said when I opened the door. Roo had been watching me try to get to the dog and she saw no reason not to be included in the fun. “I know. There is a dog. But you have to wait here.” I took a couple of Roo’s Milk Bones for bait, gave her one, took out the leash I keep handy for strays and have had to use on more them than I can count, and got back to dog hunting.

The best thing would have been to get the dog into the farther end of the parking lot, which was empty. At least he couldn’t keep disappearing between the row of parked cars and maybe without being distracted by them I could get his attention. The plan worked slowly as he heard whistles and came closer before running back in an elliptical orbit. When he got close enough, I showed him a cookie. He stopped to consider it, but decided he had better things to do. 

A man with a little kid was getting into his Jeep, and the dog was attracted to them. The dog seemed to like little kids. That gave me the chance to move in and remind the dog about the cookie. He looked like he wouldn’t mind a snack, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to risk it. Finally, he got close enough for me to wave it past his nose, and he agreed to take it. Just when he did I raised it a few inches and said, “Can you sit for me?” And he did. 

“What a good boy,” I said, and he took the cookie gently. He stood to chew it, and I stayed in place to keep from spooking him and showed him another one and gently got a couple of fingers under his collar and while he was crunching that one and clipped the leash on.

This was not a dog accustomed to being on a leash and he bounced around like a madman. It was a good thing I didn’t take Roo. They would have gotten hopelessly tangled. 

Hoping that the dog was just an escapee whose owner had just left a window too far down, I waited outside the Walmart. I asked an employee to ask the manager to keep announcing a lost brown dog with an orange collar, and they did. No one showed up. Another Walmart worker came out and said he thought he had seen a minivan drive by and the door open and the dog pushed out and the minivan drive away.

“He got dumped?”

“Well, really I don’t know. I don’t really know if that’s what I saw or not. I think I did. But don’t quote me.” How often does someone say that to someone who actually will quote them? If he wanted the conversation on background, he should have said so in the first place.

“Well, try to picture it. Think back on what you saw.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t know. Really can’t say one way to the other.” He looked away in some direction. “I don’t know if I did or not. It might have been another dog. People dump ‘em here all the time. Could have been he was just running around and someone opened a door and it looked like he was dumped.”

The dog was a fine dog, and in good shape. He was young, healthy, clean and neutered. He was a mutt, though someone must have thought he was a boxer, because his tail was docked like one. Poor bastard. What the hell is the point of subjecting a dog to needless amputation? He was the owner of a collar — a cheap one, true, but safety orange, so, one that someone had chosen inconsideration of keeping him from getting caught in a crossfire — but no tags. He was starting to calm down, and though he still wanted to check every car coming and going, he was starting to show some of that old dog spirit, and he stopped trying to get away. He began to view me as an ally and stood beside me. I told him what a good dog he was and I meant it. He had a deep, soulful look to his eyes, though I have to admit I see that in the eyes of every dog. He was worried, but I could see that the words of encouragement meant something to him and I told him a few times. 

I asked the kid to ask the manager to come outside, and in a minute there he was. We talked about the dog’s future.

“I can’t take him,” I said, because I couldn’t. It is impossible in the tiny camper with Roo, who is upset by other dogs who come inside. And God only knows what she has hidden inside, bones and various possessions that another dog would sniff out in two seconds and lead to conflict. She barely tolerated the newborn puppy we found here last time. In her view the world is a dicey enough place without other dogs moving in on her. Even getting him to the camper would be problematic. The car is loaded to the gills, and I wasn’t going to risk packing Roo and this guy in there together in the passenger seat. Roo would almost certainly snarl at him to show him who’s boss, and though he seemed gentle and kind and well-mannered, in the agitated state he was already in, I wasn’t going to risk a bad ending. I’m sure the dog professionals might smirk at that, but that’s what I was thinking. 

The manager said he was friends with a cop and he could exert some influence to get them to open the local pound after hours and get him in there. 

“The downside,” he said, “is that they only have a five day hold over there. And then, well, you know.”

“Yeah. I know. I won’t let that happen.”

“He’ll be okay in there, then. Buy him some time. Maybe someone’ll claim him.”

I remembered the rescue who took a couple of other dogs I pulled off a nearby street, Three Girls Rescue. They work that pound, but I see from their facebook page that they’re always desperate to round up the fosters without whom dogs die in the pound, just as Roo was once about to die in a pound in Los Angeles. The whole thing stinks, from the people who take dogs on only to dump them in Walmart parking lots to the people who get dogs pregnant so their kids can witness the all too often goddamned miracle of birth to the shelters starved of money and all the rest of the human machinery dogs pay for with the lives.

But I’ll work with Three Girls and try to network something. The one thing I’ll never do is turn a dog in to get killed. So, if necessary, I’ll spring him myself, though I have no idea what I’ll do with him if I do. Move him in here, I suppose, though that would be a mess and I ain’t kiddin’, I’m out of steam.

The cop showed up in less than a minute. The dog, who had ben checking every car, was glad to get in this one. He jumped straight in the back, into the prisoner compartment behind the steel divider meant to protect the cops from the flailing meth heads who normally find themselves there, and that was the last I saw of him. I felt goddamn awful about it. I always do.

But there we are.

Elections have consequences — even for Bearface.

I took Roo for a walk in downtown Brunswick a few nights ago. We walked up one street, down another, turned on a cross street, walked up that one, over a block, and so on. It was cold and raining, so I was hoping Roo would hurry up and get down to it, but she seemed to be holding out for something.

As soon as she spotted the yard signs in the storefront window of the local Democratic Party, headquartered in a small house with a tidy garden on a side street, Roo pulled right over to poop. Right there. It was obviously premeditated. She was waiting for her chance. I’ve mentioned my suspicions of her being a Trump supporter before. By now I’m pretty sure, even if she’s never come out and said so directly.

I was reminded of the time before the 2016 election, when on the backroads of 46 states I saw a grand total of two Hillary yard signs and tens of thousands of Trump signs (especially in the darkest abyss of Trump worship, which was, and remains, Tennessee, the countryside of which was one colossal red tide of blue Trump signs), and anyone I mentioned it to said the same thing, that if you put up a Dem sign you’d get human excrement thrown at your house if you were lucky, but more likely just get your windows shot out by someone who would never face a minute in jail once he explained to the cops that it wasn’t his fault if his shotgun suddenly needed a good cleaning when he was driving past your house in his F-150 and the damn musket just happened to go off by accident. It could happen to anyone and would not qualify as a crime in any right-minded community.

Driving through the farm fields someone had decorated with 400 Trump signs, or the barns painted with that filthy word or the high-profit churches flying his banner, I could get pretty steamed up, but Roo never seemed to mind. And though I never meant to hold it against her, it’s hard to shake the idea of someone you love being a #MAGAt. If she had been human, I would have offered to drop her off at the nearest Trump rally and got lost on the way back to pick her up, but you can’t do that with a dog, because Trump hates dogs, because they hate him, and they are banned from his rallies. If he wasn’t as scared of them as he is, you can be sure he’d let them in and pen them up next to the press and lead chants against them, imprecating the crowd not just to lock them up, but to eat them for good measure, but Trump knows from long experience that most dogs are onto him and wouldn’t put up with it the way the press does. They’d charge the stage and tear him apart. That’s why you never see him risk getting anywhere near a dog. It’s also what makes Roo’s support of him as inexplicable as that of African-Americans or LGBTQ or Jews or Muslims who don the MAGA hat.

The next day, we were driving to a park to take her for her walk. There were stories about all the voter suppression going on on the radio, and those got me pretty steamed up. By contrast, Roo was in a terrific mood. She was more cheerful than she usually is at the chance she’s about to get to round up some illegal mouses. This was suspiciously like gloating. As soon as we got on the trail, she catapulted herself into a mud hole that she knows full well is strictly prohibited, because that mud you see on Roo? It’s not mud. It’s the duck equivalent of highly enriched uranium, the outflow of hundreds of ducks where it is deposited by a slow current at the shallow confluence of two small brooks. The clear water she is allowed to swim in was 50 feet away. She did this the same way all Trump supporters do things — against her own interest. She was the one who was going to have to suffer being hosed down with ice water, but she didn’t care. She did it to own the lib. It’s like voting to get yourself kicked off health insurance to make more money for the insurance companies. What’s a little cancer compared to owning the libs? What good is Social Security next to owning the libs over getting it pared down to four dollars a month?

All I can say is that if Election Day doesn’t turn the tide, she better watch out, because I just might become a lot less patient around any Trumpsters. If she doesn’t want her Social Security, maybe she’ll enjoy a little taste of what her life will be like without it once she turns 75 or 80 or whatever age they’re about to raise it to. Maybe she’ll get a little taste of what life will be like on one can of wet cat food a day, if that’s what she wants.

Elections have consequences, Bearface. See you Tuesday.

Worst mistake I ever made was teaching Roo how to vote in 2014. But, gee… I might have forgotten to mention anything about how to get an absentee ballot this year. I got mine, Junior. You don’t mind a little voter suppression, do you?

Worst mistake I ever made was teaching Roo how to vote in 2014. But, gee… I might have forgotten to mention anything about how to get an absentee ballot this year. I got mine, Junior. You don’t mind a little voter suppression, do you?

Roo entertains an escaped convict

Have you ever driven past a penitentiary and thought of the poor inmates, the sadness of their lives behind the barbed wire. Of course, some of them had it coming, but I can’t help feeling sorry for them, anyway. I think that’s what Roo was thinking when this little Labradoodle or whatever the poor guy was showed up. Tortured by a lifetime of living on the other side of invisible fence, facing being fried to a crisp for edging too close to the hiking trail where all the dogs run free on the other side of the line, he decided he’d had it. He made a break for it and took the electrocution at a flying jump, and when he hit the ground and found himself not only still among the living, but free at last, he could barely contain himself. It took him a few minutes to get Roo to play, but finally she acquiesced out of pity, knowing that when it was over, the old man would just hand the escapee to the proper authorities, just like all the others, which has always been fine with Roo, and which the old man did once again.

The summer of the paws


Roo was plagued with paw trouble all summer. I thought the worst of her wounds was a hot spot that, as soon as it was healing, she would lick raw all over again. She knew she wasn’t supposed to lick it, and for the most part she didn’t, except for when she woke up in the middle of the night and did it in a groggy haze in which she’d tear off the sock I secured with tape around her ankle and start licking. By the time I’d hear it and tell her to stop — which would make her come to her senses and stop right away — it was too late. It’s amazing how much damage a dog can do with a few licks. The wound would swell up and start oozing again. It was dispiriting as hell.

That’s finally healed, even though she’s still wearing a bandage all day every day, just in case she gets interested in it, but it looks like it finally has healthy skin again. The rest of her cuts and scrapes have healed, too. She had a nasty scrape on the side of the outboard toe on the same foot as the hot spot, the result of a mousefighting incident. The fur never grew back on that, so it’s a full-fleet battle scar.. And she had two other cuts, both in the webbing between her toes, though those healed quickly. 

But now she’s been keeping her weight off her left front paw. This started three days ago. There’s no wound, nothing in her pads, and nothing I squeeze or articulate bothers her. She seems better today, and it hasn’t affected her mood, but I haven’t been letting her walk any more than necessaryj.

Yesterday I took her to the trail she likes to go to, and as soon as her tanks were emptied, I told her we were going back to the car. She was a little surprised and looked at me as if to say, “Really?” But she was glad to turn back. I got the distinct feeling that she was relieved not to have to humor me with my usual walk.

That photo album's trip out of the garbage continues

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t about the photo album, don’t read this until you read that first.]


Tucked into the back of the photo album I wrote about the other night were also a few odds and ends: a Soviet-era record of a Russian folk song, a yellowed photo of the dance troupe clipped from a newspaper, and then, from exactly a half-century later, three or four condolence cards in Cyrillic and a letter, also in Cyrillic, addressed to someone named Vladimiroff. Looking at this with my friends Jim and Virginia (where Roo and I have been camped this and the past three summers in Maine), Virginia noticed the name and said that she and Jim had known a Vladimiroff, a Vlad Vladimiroff. He had been a patient of theirs years ago. Perhaps this Vlad would know about this album. Virginia ferreted a phone number out of mutual acquaintances for Vlad and called him and told him about the album. Yes, Vlad said, his parents had both been ballet dancers. He came right over.

Vlad is a soft-spoken white-haired man of 75, born in Nazi-occupied France, brought to the United States as a toddler. We sat down at the dining table in the house, and he put his glasses on. Vera, the beautiful young woman whose album it was, was Vlad’s mother. She and her husband, both ballet dancers, were among the White Russians lucky enough to escape the new Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution. They made their way to Paris, which had a large population of Russian expatriates, and where they joined Ida Rubenstein’s ballet. The tour in the album began there, and that’s where the photo in which proudly point to the poster was taken. Later they came to America, where Vera and Serge had a ballet school in Manhattan.

The house outside of which I found the album was his family’s house until they sold it in 1983. Whoever bought and lived in the house for these past 35 years either never found the old album or just left it and the junk that was in basement alone. Who knows. The pictures were obviously in there all this time, judging by the amount of dust on them. Then they were piled in with the garbage and put on the curb. If I hadn’t taken Roo for a walk there, and if the letter addressed to Vera hadn’t been stuffed in the back, and if Virginia hadn’t noticed the name, and then been able to track Vlad down, the album’s connection back to Vlad and the Vladimiroff family would never have been made, and it would be lying in a landfill, the old photos of those young artists blowing away in the wind that has come here just now with winter, with crumpled Cheetos bags and bubble wrap.

Vlad had never seen the album before, and without a magnifying glass, he couldn’t make the pictures out too well when we were visiting in the house but he could make his mother out when she appeared in close-up. His father, Serge, appeared to be in some of them, too. The label on the album — that old piece of masking tape with VERA RUBENST — AUSTRELIA written on it — meant not Vera Rubenstein, as I thought, but instead Vera’s tour with the famous Ida Rubenstein. 

Vlad has a 45-year-old son. Serge, too. the album is back in their family, now. It’s the first rescue of that kind for me, but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good one.

The (almost) lost treasure of Madame Rubenstein


Roo and I were walking on a street near downtown Brunswick just before sunset a few weeks ago when we passed a pretty old clapboard house that must have just changed hands. It was showing the first signs of rehab — unpainted wood on a replaced front step. Tyvek wrap on a rebuilt section of wall. A new Home Depot aluminum window that the surviving windows, with their distorted glass from another time put to shame. A few bags of garbage and junk were piled at the curb: old-fashioned venetian blinds, garroted with their own cords wound around them, were crumpled like the skeletons of herons. An old soda crate had tangled Christmas lights, stained coffee cups and mason jars without lids. A roll of old giftwrapping paper sagged where mold had rotted it away.

I wasn’t going to stop for any longer than Roo was taking to sniff something, but I am too curious for my own good (I’m pretty sure I’m one of the cats in the process of of being killed by it), and the frayed edges of a stack of black blotter paper at the bottom of the soda crate caught my eye. I suspected a photo album because it looked like the kind of paper people used in the oldest ones, and, once I lifted some of the junk out of the way, that’s what it turned out to be. It was covered with decades of caked and calcified dust, and it wouldn’t be until I cleaned it later that I could even tell that the album was tan leather with dark stitches. Affixed to the black sheets, were dozens, maybe hundreds, of small black and white photographs. At first glance, they appeared to be from the 1920s, but the album was so filthy that I didn’t want to handle it until I got it cleaned up, so I took it.

On the cover of the album is a piece of torn masking tape with, VERA RUBENST and AUSTRELIA, spelled that way, in an old hand using a dull pencil. Rubenst was probably Rubenstein truncated to fit the tape, which was torn at a messy angle but had been made to do. 

The album is about a grand voyage a group of twenty-somethings took nearly a hundred years ago. Whoever took the pictures didn’t really have any talent for it. For the most part, the pictures are the group assembled for a group shot in front of a door or on a lawn.

But then they are dancing in ballet costumes. And in one photo, some of them stand in front of a poster for Ida Rubenstein. Well, the name on the album was Vera Rubenst, so that was a lead. And a little research showed that Ida Rubenstein had performed with her dance troupe in Australia around that time. It could be a coincidence, but it doesn’t seem to be.

If you look online for Ida Rubenstein, you will find one of the great stars from early part of the 20th Century. Born into one of Russia’s wealthiest families, she conned them into letting her go to school in Paris, where she was declared legally insane by a brother-in-law when he learned that she had appeared onstage. She was placed into an asylum.

While her aristocratic family would have found her appearance onstage egregious, they did not think it merited her being locked up, and they had her released and returned to Russia. Ida continued her career.

Though Ida was loaded, it was her talent and presence that made her successful. She was the real deal. Her ballet training started too late in life for her ever to become a first-rate ballet dancer, but evidently she had such presence and was so stunning that she was able to earn her reviews and stardom in spite of it. She commissioned Ravel’s Bolero, and was the first to perform in it, sculptors sculpted her and painters painted her.


But the photo album is not about Ida. It is about Vera and her friends. The only connection to Ida was that shot of them with the poster. I sent the picture to a scholar who has written about Ida. She wrote back to say she had never heard of Vera. Ida didn’t have any kids, 

Well, that should have been that. But then, today I was looking at the pictures again, and I noticed a shot on the first page of the album I had never paid enough attention to before. It is of a slender woman in an elegant fur-trimmed coat. And I’m pretty sure it’s Ida. Here’s a link to Ida on Pinterest. See what you think.

The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

The picture that looks like Ida Rubenstein in the album.

If the young troupe was part of the Ida show, it would make sense that they were traveling in the Second Class rail coaches in some of the pictures, and would only have been in contact with Ida in work settings. Ida would have been in First Class, where no impresario would have booked the kids. In the one picture that I think is Ida, she is spotted from a distance, as if even the act of pointing a camera at her right have been presumptuous. And one did not presume upon a star of Madame Rubenstein’s stature.

Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Vera in the foreground. Possibly Ida with black hair in the center.

Maybe the name is a coincidence. Rubenstein is a common name, after all. Or maybe there’s some other story buried in there.

There’s another picture in which Ida might appear, though it’s hard to tell. In it, Vera is lying in front of the group on the sand of a beach, the woman who would one day scrawl her name on the album with a dull pencil. One of the people behind her looks like it could be Ida. She looks older than the others and she looks like she could be Madame Rubenstein and has her famous black tresses, but the photo is too blurred and faded to be sure. Maybe Madame was treating her troupe to a party at the end of their tour. In Austrelia.

I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I guess it’s because if you ask people what they’d rescue from their house if it was about to be burned in a wildfire, most of them say they’d save the photos. And here were Vera’s, from an extraordinary time in her life, when she was talented and beautiful, dancing on a world tour with a famous ballerina and a group of friends, on steamships and trains, being driven around Austrelia and Italy in flashy cars with running boards in the days when the girls wore cloche hats and the boys wouldn’t think of sprawling on a lawn without their suit and ties on. Here they were, ready to be carted off with the trash.

I guess everybody’s story eventually ends that way. At least this one won’t be, for now.

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